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To me, using Present Perfect form means the event can occur again. So, saying

someone has died

may not be grammatically correct.

Also, I noticed (it might be just co-incidence):

passed away

is used more often than

has passed away

Is using Present Perfect correct here?

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1  
Someone has died (as opposed to someone died) when the death is so recent it can be seen as "still ongoing" (or "news"). –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '12 at 21:53
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You'll usually find "John has passed away." as a complete sentence (it's ongoing/news). But "John passed away last night" is more reporting a "past" event. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '12 at 22:01
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You might want to look at this NGram, which I think will bear out my point that the more common passed away is normally followed by when. The less common has passed away is usually so recent there's no need to specify when. –  FumbleFingers Apr 4 '12 at 22:11
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It's not the death that is ongoing, it's the "everyone-else-finding-out-about-someone's-death" that is ongoing. I think FumbleFingers' explanations are right on the mark. –  JLG Apr 4 '12 at 22:22
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1 Answer 1

up vote 20 down vote accepted

The Present Perfect Construction in English has the following uses (cf. McCawley 1971):

  • (a) The Universal sense of the Perfect, used to indicate that a state of affairs prevailed throughout some interval stretching from the past into the present
    I've known Max since 1960.

  • (b) The Existential sense of the Perfect, used to indicate the existence of past events,
    I have read Principia Mathematica five times.

  • (c) The Stative/Resultative sense of the Perfect, used to indicate that the direct effect of a past event still continues
    I can't come to your party tonight - I've caught the flu.

  • (d) The Hot News sense of the Perfect, used to report hot news
    Malcolm X has just been assassinated.

This, coupled with the lack of Present Perfect with subjects who are dead

  • Madonna has visited Princeton.
  • *Einstein has visited Princeton.

means that X has died is only appropriate at a time when the addressee would not yet know that X is dead.

Executive Summary: If it's Hot News, use the Present Perfect; but if it's Old News, simple past.


McCawley, James D. 1971. Tense and time reference in English.
In C. Fillmore and T. Langendoen (eds.), Studies in Linguistic Semantics
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp 96-113.

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+1 for detailed explanation. Your answer kind of confirms what other people said in their comments but provides better reasoning –  Igor Turman Apr 4 '12 at 23:21
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+1 - Finally I have understood the present perfect usage. –  user19148 Apr 5 '12 at 2:16
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+1 for a nice summary of Present Perfect usage. After all, who knows how long it will be around, given that 'the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be' (Douglas Adams)? –  Amos M. Carpenter Apr 5 '12 at 3:42
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Some people say if you analyse a beautiful piece of nature or art you somehow reduce it, but I'm not one of them. I love seeing the bare bones of something I "know" about language usage (but can't fully articulate) laid bare so clearly. I look forward to closing an endless stream of related future questions in favour of this one! –  FumbleFingers Apr 5 '12 at 12:21
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First approximations only in answers to questions like this. Sentences like those are the kind that keep syntacticians awake. –  John Lawler May 30 '12 at 22:32
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